By Eromo Egbejule
JENGRE, Nigeria, Aug 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For Rhoda Tanko, preparing dishes of okra or egusi soup in her small shack was a daily ordeal spent battling the dizzying, toxic black fumes spewed out by her charcoal stove.
"Every time I had to cook for my family, I knew I had to deal with smoke that made my head feel heavy and my eyes swim," Tanko, a 38-year-old mother of four, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the central Nigerian town of Jengre.
Her home's energy needs were costly too: oil-rich Nigeria's unreliable power supply meant she had little choice but to spend a large part of the family's income on firewood, charcoal and kerosene.
But that changed earlier this year when, with help from her local cooperative, Tanko bought a new, cleaner-burning stove.
The stove, which cost 10,500 naira ($34), was provided by Solar Sister, a non-profit that operates in Nigeria as well as in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
The charity helps women entrepreneurs sell clean-energy consumer products such as solar lamps and a stove that minimises emissions by trapping most of the smoke fumes within its aluminium combustion chamber.
A more efficient stove means fewer trees are felled for firewood, said Hanatu Onogu, Solar Sister's business development manager in northern Nigeria.
"Because people use less charcoal and firewood for more cooking, it saves resources. In the long run, it reduces the rate of deforestation and conserves energy," Onogu said.
Over the past two years, about 4,500 of these stoves have been sold in Nigeria alone, according to Solar Sister.
Tanko, who is one of several hundred women in her area testing out the stove, said it had made a big difference.
"It cooks food faster and it doesn't consume much charcoal. Before, a bag of charcoal would not last one month, but now it's been four months and this bag is not finished yet," she said, pointing at a half-empty sack.
Worldwide, more than three billion people use traditional, solid fuels like charcoal, firewood and dung to cook, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
And each year nearly four million people, most of them women and girls, die from the effects of these dirty, climate-changing cooking fuels, the WHO says, in part due to inefficient stoves and poorly ventilated homes.
A lack of access to cleaner energy supplies is a problem in Nigeria too - despite the fact that the country of 180 million people is Africa's biggest oil producer.
Fuel shortages are common, with its 445,000 barrel-per-day refining system operating well below capacity due to mismanagement and lack of investment, forcing the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation to import most of its gasoline.
The country has set a target of expanding electricity access to 75 percent of the population by 2020 and 90 percent by 2030.
Meantime, the supply remains unreliable: January saw six power outages in eight days as the national grid repeatedly collapsed, plunging most of the country into darkness.
That burden falls harder on Nigerians in rural areas, where just one in four people are connected to the national grid, according to campaign group Power for All, which promotes decentralized, renewable energy, and which funds Solar Sister.
Moving from fossil fuels to cleaner energy for cooking - and solar energy for lighting - has gained momentum in parts of northern Nigeria through groups like Solar Sister.
The non-profit assists low-income families like Tanko's to switch by offering the option to pay in instalments. It also provides customer support and raises awareness about the benefits of clean energy.
A lack of access to a reliable supply of electricity means many families in Nigeria - and across Africa - use kerosene for lighting, a fuel that experts say is polluting, dirty and bad for human health.
It is also relatively expensive: switching to solar could cut the amount that families in Africa spend on lighting to just 2 percent of their household income - down from 9 percent - according to a 2016 report by the Overseas Development Institute, a think-tank based in the United Kingdom.
Using a solar-powered lamp means 28-year-old Nafisa Abubakar can avoid the dangers of kerosene and the inconvenience of blackouts. Sitting in her small shack, she flicked a switch, and a solar lamp lit up her home.
Abubakar could not have done that with confidence six years ago, even though her home was connected to the national utility, known then as NEPA.
"Our light was very inconsistent. Sometimes for two months straight the light would not even turn on," Abubakar said in Hausa via a translator.
"We were using NEPA light. Then one day the transformer blew up and it was not repaired until a year later. So we have been using the (Solar Sister) lamp for five years now," she said.
As day turned to night, Abubakar and her husband watched television while their two sons finished their homework under the radiant light of the solar lamp.
"We are happy for this light that we have," she said.
Solar Sister says nearly 48,000 solar products have been sold in Nigeria since 2015 - be they phone-charging units, household lights or lamps.
And for Abubakar, the lamp has become more than a household convenience: these days she sells solar lights for a living.
Power for All, the campaign group, said the products allowed people to live safer, healthier lives and to save money.
"We are even happier for the women who use them and have built sustainable micro-enterprises selling them, as it has brightened the chances of ending energy poverty," said the group's Nigeria spokesman Mark Amaza.
(Reporting by Eromo Egbejule. Editing by Lin Taylor and Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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